A report by Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich paints a picture of the Hickman Mills School District running amok.
Schweich’s audit is a saga of contracts being awarded without bids, wasteful travel by some board members and employees, multiple questionable expenditures, hefty amounts of money spent on meals, improperly closed meetings and some very strange personnel moves.
This is what happens when not enough people are watching. While media in Kansas City were focused on what was going on with the larger Kansas City Public Schools district, few noticed that Hickman Mills was slipping out of control. Inattention and weak board leadership created a vacuum, and some greedy people in the community slipped in to grab contracts, jobs and other taxpayer-provided perks. By last spring, the tenacles of Freedom Inc., the political club, were leaving puncture marks in the district’s fabric. The district had slipped to provisional accreditation and its finances were shaky.
Schweich’s audit details how former school board President Breman Anderson, a Freedom member, seemingly singlehandedly engineered a swap of acting superintendents in 2012, with the public, fellow board members and even the ousted placeholder in the dark about the move. Anderson used his board position to create a small fiefdom, even ordering staff to write a check with district funds for a Alpha Kappa Alpha debutante ball fundraiser on behalf of a former board secretary’s daughter.
The one good thing that happened under Anderson’s leadership was the hiring of current Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, although the audit has plenty to say about the expensive search process.
Carpenter, who hails from Georgia, is working overtime to get the district operating on a professional basis. It helps — a lot — that the board staged a coup last May and ousted Anderson. The current president, Eric Lowe, and the vice president, Dan Osman, are straight shooters who follow the rules.
The board and superintendent pretty much agree with all of the criticisms and recommendations in Schweich’s audit. Progress will continue as long as Carpenter stays and the current board membership remains in place. That’s not a given; 10 candidates are running for three open school board seats in next month’s election. Some of them, including Anderson, are thought to have ties to Freedom.
The chances of history repeating itself as slim, though. Because this time, we’ll all be watching.